Gift guide: Books about the planet and its wonders

Nov 20, 2019

Crystal Giants by Giovanni Badino
This book shows clearly how the reality of nature can go far beyond human imagination. Badino and the explorers of La Venta bring the reader on the exploration of one of the most astonishing places of the world, the Giant Crystal Cave of Naica, discovered in a silver mine in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 2000. This underground cave hosts the biggest crystals found on Earth, up to 11-meter-long transparent prisms of selenite.
— Francesco Sauro (TED Talk: Deep under the earth’s surface, discovering beauty and science)

What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe
Our fishy ancestors emerged from the watery depths around 400 million years ago, and this beautiful book connects us back to that time. Balcombe fishes out an eclectic array of studies that show we’re much more similar to fish than meets the eye. Showing that fish share predilections to music types, have dysfunctional family interactions and can be finicky gourmands, this books channels the goldfish in each and every one of us.
— David Gruber (TED Talk: Glow-in-the-dark sharks and other stunning sea creatures)

The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us by Diana Beresford-Kroeger
This beautifully written book is about where philosophy and science intertwine. It also explores how aboriginal cultures have survived for thousands of years because of their way of life, which is unlike our modern civilization that has pushed us to the edge of survival.
— Shubhendu Sharma (TED Talk: An engineer’s vision for tiny forests, everywhere)

Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds: North America, Britain and Northern Europe by John Bevis
This book is both an enormous joke and a real art piece. This dictionary of bird sounds and mnemonics will make you sensitive to the funny paradox of transcribing the amazing variety of bird sounds into human words and to the limitation of verbal elements in animal and human voices.
— Rebecca Kleinberger (TED Talk: Why you don’t like the sound of your own voice)

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen
This lively book for a popular audience covers our current understanding of all the major mass extinctions in the history of life and what they collectively mean for our future. Brannen interviewed paleobiologists, geologists and other investigators, tagging along on fieldwork and visiting their labs. As a result, it’s part travelogue, part hard data and part sociology of science, resulting in a deep and multifaceted view of the state of the world. It’s also fun.
— Lauren Sallan (TED Talk: How to win at evolution and survive a mass extinction)

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
This comical true tale of Bryson’s misadventures as he hikes the Appalachian Trail left me with a stomach ache from laughing out loud. It inspired me to take on new adventures — no matter how ill prepared I might be!
— Lucy Marcil (TED Talk: Why doctors are offering free tax prep in their waiting rooms)

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey
Casey follows surfers and scientists to look at some of the largest waves ever witnessed on our seas. In her firsthand account, she offers adventure laced with science, exploring issues like global warming and the health of our oceans. What’s more, she writes her story in beautiful prose that enlightens as much as it entertains.
— Jill Heinerth (TED Talk: The mysterious world of underwater caves)

The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong
I was fortunate to be taught zoology by Dawkins (TED Talk: Why the universe seems so strange) at Oxford. He may have been a truly terrifying man to write an essay for, but he is a brilliant scientific communicator — especially on the subject of evolution. This is my favorite of all his books. It is an epic journey back through time to meet our “concestors”: the closest common ancestors that we share with 40 creatures (from chimpanzees to bacteria). Dawkins models his book on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, breaking it up into “The Marsupial Mole’s Tale,” “The Elephant Bird’s Tale,” and many others. In each tale, he looks at an aspect of the tree of life or at evolution in general. The result is a big, almost encyclopedic compendium bursting with information and ideas.
— Lucy Cooke (TED Talk: Sloths — the strange life of the world’s slowest mammal)

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth by Richard Fortey
I’ve read this book many times, since Fortey is a master on writing about science in a very entertaining way. Many times, I’ve just re-read the first chapter to have a sense of what it’s like to explore new worlds and places like Indiana Jones.
— Armando Azua-Bustos (TED Talk: The most Martian place on Earth)

Seeing Science: An Illustrated Guide to the Wonders of the Universe by Iris Gottlieb
While I use music and sound, Gottlieb uses the universal language of visual art to understand and share the elegant beauty of the world around us. Equal parts fascinating and whimsical, this book tells the stories of scientific wonders big and small, with many frame-worthy pages along the way. It shows the potential rewards of fearlessly following your curiosity and imagination, wherever it leads.
— Matt Russo (TED Talk: What does the universe sound like? A musical tour)

Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon
Who knew that taking an interplanetary, billion-year view on our environmental troubles could inspire such optimism? Grinspoon is a planetary scientist, and he thinks big — very big. He’s also hopeful that as we mature as a species, we will become ever better at preserving all species, controlling climate change and thinking about ourselves as part of one vast interconnected biosphere.
— Emma Marris (TED Talk: Nature is everywhere — we just need to learn to see it)

The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson & Issa edited by Robert Hass
Whenever I want a good laugh, I browse this compilation of haikus by several of the Japanese masters. Descriptive phrases like “Morning breeze riffling the caterpillar’s hair” and “Year after year, a monkey’s face, on the monkey’s face” capture nature like I’ve never seen elsewhere. Their appreciation for the mundane and the way in which they find hilarity in the natural world makes for a book to be read out loud — whether you’re around the campfire or when you’re enjoying time with friends and family.
— Rebecca Tarvin (TED-Ed Lesson: Why don’t poisonous animals poison themselves?)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (TED Talk: Questioning the universe) and Leonard Mlodinow
This book beautifully weaves stories of the greatest philosophers and scientific thinkers into a compelling narrative about some of the universe’s biggest unanswered questions. It’s very readable and accessible.
— Vikram Sharma (TED Talk: How quantum physics can make encryption stronger)

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson
This nonfiction book is part mystery, part natural history, and part jaw-dropping mirror of our modern society. Johnson does an amazing job of seeking to understand the role of natural history collections and explaining how misinterpreting their role can lead people astray. He follows one man’s obsession with the obscure and ancient art of fly-tying and how that led him to break into a museum to steal priceless specimens. If you love nature or museums, this crime will chill you to the bone.
— Prosanta Chakrabarty (TED Talk: Four billion years of evolution in six minutes)

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Everyone knows we have a problem with the environment. But did you know there have been just five mass extinction events in the last half billion years — the most recent of which was 66 million years ago, when an asteroid hit the earth — and that we humans are causing the sixth? Every day, I think about what I learned from this book. Kolbert doesn’t offer solutions — she leaves that to us.
— Vivek Maru (TED Talk: How to put the power of law in people’s hands)

River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon
This race against time, and winter weather, is an attempt to travel across the country in a relatively fragile 25-foot outboard-powered boat navigating almost entirely on America’s rivers. The bonus, beyond pure adventure tale, is a unique window into America’s diversity and extraordinary multiplicity of cultures.
— Stephen Petranek (TED Talk: Your kids might live on Mars. Here’s how they’ll survive)

Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence by Stefano Mancuso
Some books just change the way you look at the world. This book that asks “Are plants intelligent?” is one of them.
— Sugata Mitra (TED Talk: Build a school in the cloud)

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann (TED Talk: How will we survive when the population hits 10 billion?)
This double biography of Norman Borlaug (Nobel Prize laureate and the father of the 20th-century agricultural revolution) and William Vogt (the inspiration behind the modern conservationist movement) is really a modern history of environmentalism and its philosophical origins. It’s a highly-informed narrative of how scientific, cultural and political ecology came to drastically opposed viewpoints on whether technology can save us or eventually bury us. It’s a very timely read as we debate how to fight for our climate, clean air, and a cleaner planet. (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
— Romain Lacombe (TED Talk: A personal air-quality tracker that lets you know what you’re breathing)

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology by Lisa Margonelli
Termites are the unloved freaks of the social insect world. While bees are praised for their pollination skills and ants are lauded for their industry, termites are an affront to human civilization, munching their way through everything we hold dear — our libraries, our homes, even our cash. In 2011, an errant gang of termites burrowed into an Indian bank and ate $220,000 in bank notes! But as Margonelli’s mesmerizing book makes clear, we have got termites all wrong. For a start these “white ants” aren’t ants at all but cockroaches that evolution has shrunk, blinded and turned surprisingly social (all of which does little for their public relations). The termite bucks basic biological rules and thumbs its nose at science as much as it does homeowners. But this mystery makes termites fascinating to the author and a motley crew of multidisciplinary scientists who are all trying to crack the termite code and put it to good use. As we stand “on the border of our natural history and an unnatural future,” this masterly book is a timely, thought-provoking exploration of what it means to be human — as much as what it means to be termite — and a penetrating look at the moral challenges of our ongoing technological revolution.
— Lucy Cooke (TED Talk: Sloths — the strange life of the world’s slowest mammal)

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan
This book highlights our place in the universe in a very uplifting way. The earth, this place we call our home, is just a tiny spot in the vastness of space, and the book shows us that the small “pale blue dot” where we live is a small dot full of life and love.
— Lina Marieth Hoyos (TED-Ed Lesson: What is the coldest thing in the world?)

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales
Seashells have been an object of fascination throughout history, used as jewelry, currencies — not to mention as food. The book is easy to read and filled with fun science facts and studies. It’s a good balance of complex and playful language.
— Mei Lin Neo (TED Talk: The fascinating secret lives of giant clams)

An Orchard Invisible by Jonathan Silvertown
An Orchard Invisible has rave reviews and not so subtly points out the importance of sex in plants to provide seeds for our food and other needs. As one of the comments in Times Higher Education states: “Read it as a gardener, scientist, food aficionado, historian, botanist or naturalist and you will not be disappointed.”
— Jill Farrant (TED Talk: How we can make crops survive without water)

Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker
I’ve run the gamut on my personal flying experiences. Used to love flying, then really didn’t like it, then was afraid of it, and now I enjoy it again. Skyfaring is a poetic and beautiful tome on the wonders of flying and the experiences of sailing through the air from one place to another. The author, a current 747 pilot, has such an effortless way with words. I’ve highlighted more great lines in this book than any other in the past few years. If you love how words can connect ideas, feelings and your imagination, you’ll love this book.
— Jason Fried (TED Talk: Why work doesn’t happen at work)

Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by Gaia Vince
In this nonfiction book about climate change, Vince tells how she quit her job as a journalist to travel the world and find people who are having to adapt to our changing world. What she uncovers is an uplifting story of the ingenuity of humans. It’s beautifully written, and you will come away inspired.
— Suzie Sheehy (TED Talk: The case for curiosity-driven research)

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
Wohlleben describes many astonishing features about our calm neighbors, the trees. They can talk to each other over huge distances, help each other when they get sick, and display individual character. You’ll learn about the personalities of different trees and why isolated trees in cities feel like orphans.
— Hannah Bürckstümmer (TED Talk: A printable, flexible, organic solar cell)

Go here to see the other book categories in the gift guide 

Do these recommendations look familiar? They’ve been curated from TED’s reading lists